When Free Equals Profit

BeerHey, EMC, pay attention! Wired reports Microsoft is going to give free copies of its software development tools to students. Even Microsoft gets how giving away something for free now can equal profit later: Flooding the market with graduates already trained on their products will encourage businesses to choose those same products. I’ve been shouting and begging for a developer license program from Documentum for ages under a similar argument.

I want Documentum to provide an affordable, if not free, single-user developer license for their products. I mentioned before how big Documentum is and how my clients shape my knowledge of Documentum. No one project and no company I’ve seen so far uses the entire suite–nobody probably would because some of the products are industry-focused. I have to choose carefully when accepting contracts since that’s my only legal access to Documentum software. Each contract shapes my marketability for the next, so I sometimes pass up otherwise good, interesting work when it’s dead-end or same-old same-old from the Documentum perspective.

The parallel between what I want and Microsoft’s deal for students has to do with the affordability gap. The average college student can’t otherwise afford licenses for Studio, SQL Server, and the other half-dozen tools. Microsoft doesn’t need to give independent developers a free ride because they have a developer program that gives all that and more for a price that the average professionals can afford–and write off on their taxes. Many of my Softie peers do just that, but I can’t do the same thing with Documentum. The regular cost of the product is geared to large companies.

If I want to learn about a particular aspect (hint, hint) of the product, my choices are limited: (1) Pirate the software, something I oppose strongly from my days at Commodore. (2) Use a client’s software for my own purposes on my own time, but my contracts usually don’t allow me to profit from such work or even publish them on my blog. (3) Influence clients to use the technologies that interest me, an ethical minefield as well as risky for a project’s success. None of these are acceptable, so I (4) try to pick projects that give me what I want. However, clients don’t want to hear, “I really want to work with technology x, and you should hire me even though I have no real experience with it.” It’s a huge marketing downside that I personally can offset with other skills and seniority. Most developers can’t.

That’s how Documentum (the company) retarded the growth of its developer community, by keepings its cards too close to its chest. Things have actually gotten better under EMC’s control; the EMC Content Management Developer Center is a good supplemental resource that gets updated frequently and tries to foster a sense of community. However, it’s no substitute for having the product in my own two hands. Hopefully one of those Microsoft fans at EMC will take note of their pop idol’s action and emulate it. Boy, isn’t that a strange thing for me to wish for?

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